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Internal Colonialism


The term internal colonialism defines a condition of oppression or subordination, often of one ethnic group over another (as in the subordination of Mexicans in the United States at the conclusion of the U.S.-Mexican War of 1846–1848). Some view the term as a contraposition to the claim that all people in the United States "are immigrants." For example, immigrant does not describe accurately the lives of people of Mexican origin living in the territory known today as the southwestern United States. Many residents of what is now New Mexico and Texas trace their ancestry back to the 1600s. For them, the term immigrant does not reflect their history or relationship to the United States and it mischaracterizes the place of native-born Mexican-origin peoples. Moreover, in relation to other ethnic groups, immigrant status fails to reflect accurately the histories of African slave descendants, nor does it do justice to relocated and disrupted Native peoples.

Because the general claim that all Americans are of immigrant stock is problematic, the nature of Mexicans' status in the United States must be supplemented with other terms or concepts. For Mexicans, or Chicanos and Chicanas, as their descendants are termed today, the term internal colonialism is applied by social scientists and others to understand the historical and cultural conditions or experiences that were a direct result of the actions of governments. Because of the conditions in the 1840s, many Mexicans and Native peoples suddenly found themselves residents, though not citizens, of a new government and its structures. In view of the fact that these people had been "colonized" by a contiguous power, that is, the larger and more prosperous United States, and they owned or lived on land considered highly desirable, Chicana and Chicano scholars, as well as others sensitive to the history of this ethnic group, began to apply the term internal colonialism to describe how people were locked into certain jobs, how the economy that developed particularly in the Southwest relied on an organized system of subordinator and subordinated.

Other scholars have more recently differentiated the ways in which workers in the Southwest differ from one region to another, and a more nuanced understanding of differences and similarities is therefore achieved. An example would be how urban people and rural people differed during any period, or how men's and women's values changed, and not always in tandem. While internal colonialism might help explain various features of a lived experience, in a period of hostile warfare between two nations, for example, it cannot explain all aspects of culture, politics, or philosophies and religions.

At times, internal colonialism is set against colonialism, with the latter viewed as older and more authoritarian, that is, more rigid in structure and organization. In the early twenty-first century, however, the fact of colonization itself is rarely questioned; that is, it is assumed that Mexican-origin and to some extent indigenous/Native peoples were colonized by a nation-state still in its formative years (beginning in the Southwest around 1803 and extending up to the time of the war's outbreak in 1846). It might be useful to think of internal colonialism as less organized than colonialism in its reach, but its impact was felt by people across a spectrum of classes and social locations. Even wealthy merchants of Mexican origin in Santa Fe were forced to accept a new authority in the form of judges, military officials, and federal appointees in a newly-imposed court system after 1848. Before long, internal colonialism assured their subordination. For women, the same applied. No longer able to bring lawsuits, retain property in their own names, or retain their family names or lands, women suffered a diminishment in their status as well.

Colonized from within by a government or power greater than that which had once existed would be another way to approach how useful internal colonialism is to nonimmigrant, Mexican-origin people of the Southwest and far West. The United States brought Protestant, English-based institutions, as well as schools and businesses, when it created a pathway toward California. Accompanying the movement of goods, products, and English-speaking people were racial ideologies, political orientations, and doctrines that specified why Mexicans and Native Americans could not hold public office, travel freely, own businesses, or live their lives independent of wages earned working for others. The concept of "manifest destiny" decreed that people of the white, Anglo "race" were superior to Mexicans and Indians. The legal codes developed in the United States and forcibly applied to all the colonized territory that had once belonged to Mexico, along with the violence of lynchings and deportations that continued into the twentieth century, conveyed an important message about internal colonialism. The fear and terror evidenced in actions against Mexicans based on their race, for example, lynchings that would number more than 500 between 1850 and 1920, reveal the way internal colonialism operated on what was essentially a "frontier" territory.

To understand the significance of this concept means more than just debating whether it explains fully how racism and oppression operated; it means taking seriously the history of exclusion and its enforcement among ethnic groups or races judged to be inferior to white, Anglo-Saxon, and European-origin peoples. In that sense, the phrase and idea of internal colonialism are useful for unraveling the history of the Southwestern and Western United States. Scholars in the early twenty-first century recommend consideration as well about colonialism or transnational capital movement, that is, global capitalism, and not just focus on internal colonialism; but the everyday, lived experiences of many ethnic groups that can be understood through a deeper comprehension of internal colonialism. Although the term does not explain racial or gender relations fully, it introduces the idea that politics and economics worked together to displace and replace residents of a territory and then continued this practice as immigrants began repopulating the former Mexican north after the war with Mexico had long since ended.

The demographic reclamation of the same territory proceeding in the early twenty-first century in a process of immigration and migration is ironic to the extent that what the United States most disliked, that is, people of color determining their own futures, is an ongoing process and consequence of these earlier wars and the displacements they introduced, whether social, religious, political, or economic. Internal colonialism thus continues to fuel a much larger, global issue, that of the mass movement of people toward industrial capitalist centers or toward the developed urban nation-state. Because the impact of these currents is so strong in such places as Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, and the Southern United States as well as in the Midwest (where people of Mexican origin now reside in record numbers), defining the operations of internal colonialism is useful. Local and global developments demand it.

Deena J. González

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